Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Yamina party and presumably Israel’s next prime minister, finally faced the nation Sunday night to deliver a groundbreaking speech that just might signal the end of an era.
I intend to do everything in my power to form a unity government with my friend Yair Lapid
“I intend to do everything in my power to form a unity government with my friend Yair Lapid,” declared Bennett, after weeks of laying low and maintaining radio silence following the March 23 election.
“Together, we will pull Israel out of its tailspin and put it back on track,” he added.
The announcement was made with just over 72 hours left for Lapid, chairman of the center-left Yesh Atid party and former leader of the opposition, to present his government, after being tapped to do so by President Reuven Rivlin in late April.
After vacillating for months and reversing his official stance repeatedly, including just in the past week, Bennett, a former aide and ally of incumbent Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who maneuvered his way to the position of kingmaker in the March election, ultimately elected to join Netanyahu’s bitter rivals.
“There is no option for a right-wing government. It’s either this or a fifth election,” he told his supporters Sunday.
It will be my pleasure to work with [Lapid] and other good colleagues … to bring back that sense of ‘we,’ which was Israel’s secret weapon since its inception
Bennett and Lapid will now look to finalize an unprecedented Israeli coalition, consisting of far-right, centrist and far-left parties, and dependent on the outside support of the Islamist Ra’am party, all sharing the goal of ousting Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister in the revived nation’s young history, and ending the past two year’s political stalemate.
“We’re divided on a number of core issues, but we share a love of country and a willingness to work together for it,” Bennett said of his newfound partners. “It will be my pleasure to work with [Lapid] and other good colleagues… to bring back that sense of ‘we,’ which was Israel’s secret weapon since its inception.
“We’ll focus on what can be done, instead of fighting over what can’t be done,” he said.
Aside from unseating Netanyahu, the move also constitutes a significant breach by Bennett of several of his most central campaign promises.
While he vowed to replace the “failed” prime minister during the latest election cycle − Israel’s fourth in two years − and also swore he would do everything to prevent a fifth round at the polls, Bennett at the same time declared he would not join Lapid and would not lean on predominantly Arab parties, two pledges he will break if he is indeed sworn in next week, as is now expected.
I have faith in Bennett’s leadership. This has a chance to be an even better functioning, more right-wing government than Netanyahu ever led
“Look, anyone who voted for Yamina did not imagine we’d reach this point, this government. Our first preference has always been a right-wing government,” Keren Harel, who chairs the party’s Judea and Samaria headquarters in the West Bank, told The Media Line.
“But [Netanyahu] has failed to establish a government for two years straight. The country is disintegrating. Tough decisions need to be made, between the lesser of two evils – either endless elections, with no budget passed [since 2019], or this cooperation.
“We have 70 to 80% in common, even with the left-wing voters in Israel,” Harel said. “I have faith in Bennett’s leadership. This has a chance to be an even better functioning, more right-wing government than Netanyahu ever led.”
Yet on Monday, a poll conducted among Yamina voters showed 61% would not have voted for the party had they known it would join a unity government with the Center-Left. Just over 34% of Yamina voters replied they would not change their ballot if they could.
Of those who voted for the party, 65% said they preferred a fifth election over a Bennett-Lapid coalition.
[Bennett] is lying to the public. It’s the scam of the century. All he wants is to be prime minister. That’s it
Following Bennett’s address, Netanyahu himself took the stage, warning Israelis the projected government would endanger the nation’s security and very existence.
“This isn’t about unity, healing, or democracy,” the prime minister said. “It’s an opportunistic government of surrender, of deception and weakness.”
Netanyahu is currently on trial on criminal charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
“[Bennett] is lying to the public. It’s the scam of the century,” he later accused. “All he wants is to be prime minister. That’s it.”
A lot of our voters are definitely for this move, but those that are opposed are simply louder. You see it online, on social media. I understand their frustration, it’s legitimate, but I don’t believe they’re the majority
Moshe Werner, who heads Yamina’s Petah Tikva regional headquarters, told The Media Line he supports his party leader’s “difficult” decision.
“It’s an awkward government, no doubt, but Netanyahu didn’t have a government to offer Bennett, and no one believes him anymore anyway.”
Following last year’s third indecisive election, Netanyahu signed a rotation agreement with the then-leader of the center-left bloc, and current defense minister, Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz, by which the former would serve two years as premier before turning over the prime minister’s office to the latter on November 17, 2021.
Netanyahu’s decision to violate that agreement is what led Israel to its fourth round at the ballot box in March.
“A lot of our voters are definitely for this move, but those that are opposed are simply louder,” Werner says. “You see it online, on social media. I understand their frustration, it’s legitimate, but I don’t believe they’re the majority.
Harel says, “These aren’t right-wing voters, they’re Netanyahu loyalists. They refuse to accept the possibility that anyone else can be prime minister after 12 straight years of Bibi,” she adds, referring to Netanyahu by his popular nickname.
“Netanyahu wants to drag the entire country down his own personal Masada,” Bennett said Sunday, referring to the historic mass-suicide committed by Jewish rebels in the year 73 rather than become slaves of the Roman enemy, which has become a symbol of bravery and desperation in Jewish tradition.
“We’re facing a well-oiled machine that spreads lies day and night to scare the public. We need to stop the insanity and take responsibility,” he said.